Stop Not Linking, Forever.

Frequently, blogs copy a news article, reword it, and repost it wholesale, without adding any new research. They very often lose information or veracity in the transliteration of the post. This is a useless practice that needs to stop. Marco Arment, the instapaper developer, says that you should cite your sources visibly – not only does it make you more honest, it provides more raw information for the reader.

There is a tendency among spurious hacks of the world to present someone else’s idea as ones own. As much as I hate the wrong and harmful idea of patents (the exclusive right granted by a government to an inventor to manufacture, use, or sell an invention for a certain number of years), plagiarism is a different beast – in news media especially. The crime here is some part lack of attribution, and some part loss of information.

Arment has this to say about the phenomenon:

The most ethically and professionally sound practice when you have little value to add to the source story is the linked-list approach. Give a teaser quote and a prominent link. Make it clear that you didn’t write the target article, there’s more to be read there, and here’s how to get to it.Don’t replace it. Send your readers there.If you’re truly providing value, you should have the confidence to send your audience away, knowing that they’ll come back to you. If that’s not the case, don’t bother publishing.

It’s true. If you want to pontificate, great! If you want to build on someone else’s point, fine. Cite your sources and don’t massage facts, or you aren’t a journalist. And credit the original research, or you’re a plagiarist. Easy.

The physics of IP

Equity demands information-makers be compensated. But I don’t think that it follows that people should have exclusive and enforced rights to information. We could reward them by paying them out of taxes, or paying them a pension, or some other means. Telling them they own forever the stuff they make but that they can sell rights to it just seems:

1. Bad for the greater good because it stifles innovation and hurts consumers and information producers alike
2. Hacked on, given the amount of paperwork and disputes the system generates
3. Completely impossible to enforce anyway

The problem is not just that the practical aspects are flawed, I think the deeper problem is the construct of ownership of a non-scarce good. We won’t come up with any ‘good’ way to regulate the ownership of information because the idea is really silly from the outset.

If Newton’s heirs started suing people over their use of the theory of gravity under some forgotten English law, we wouldn’t just say “Oh, science doesn’t count”, we would say “You can’t possibly own that, that’s insane” but I don’t think it’s any less sane than owning a song or a drug formula.

That said I have no objection whatsoever on industry regulated appellations like champagne and feta. They don’t claim ownership of ideas, just namespace. Not offensive to me. Not so much brand names either.

Copyleft books on Intellectual Property

Heads up: If you’re at all interested in contemporary discussions of intellectual property, I have as many as three (3) fascinating books for you to download. Note that these links are to the content owners’ websites.

Against Intellectual Monopoly is a biting criticism of the values in place behind IP law. It argues that our culture is inherently sharable, but that its channels have been hijacked. This one comes from a fairly radical standpoint, compared to most.

The Public Domain: enclosing the commons of the mind comes at the problem from a more naturalist angle, tracing the origins of intellectual property from royal privilege grants to trade guilds to the founders of the US. It makes a number of solid, innovative arguments against the present brokenness of the system.

FREE CULTURE is, to my knowledge, the most authoritative IP reformist document existing. While Lawrence Lessig is not the most progressive of the group (left of center and strongly in favor of fair use protections, though in favor of keeping protections on the books), he does attack the problem with as much depth as has been plumbed for the layperson.

The law may not be on our side, but these books prove that the great minds are. Download and tell your friends.

These letters are free

I think:

1. Information, because it does not exist in the same way physical objects do, cannot be owned the way physical objects are. A disk can be owned, a song cannot. A book can be owned, a sequence of words cannot.

2. The idea that we have constructed a practical system to encourage innovation by assigning property rights to data as though it were an object is poorly executed and irresponsible, and does more harm than good.

3. Allowing society to determine how to best reward the creation of culture would be more desirable than our current application of law to create a ‘market’ of ideas that is artificially propped up and enforced.

4. Someday we will collectively realize 1, 2, and 3, and abandon our attempt to assign rights to intangibles. This will not stifle the production and accumulation of culture.

The idea that culture will not be produced without patents and copyrights is preposterous. Instead, ideas will be shared, reviewed, and distributed more (not freely, but more commonly) when they are free of these contrived laws.

Things the Collective Should Do: Open Academic Web Journal

I’m suggesting here a free-content, openly accessible online repository where researchers, professors, and students publish scientific journal articles for peer review and wide distribution.

This website allows scientific research papers to be published by qualified academicians. The articles can be freely read and peer-reviewed online. Articles are translated into other languages so that they can be read worldwide. A system of of moderation provides a meritocratic means of awarding prestige and press based on quality. An accompanying print journal is provided pro bono or at nominal cost to institutions. To increase the prestige of the journal/repository, it is marketed as a trustable, progressive, intelligent institution, and content is carefully reviewed.

The current scientific publication industry relies on established branding of respectable journals and the ‘publish or perish’ dynamic to keep it afloat. Authors often have to pay for their articles to be published in print-bound journals, which are then sold at a high price to academic institutions. At best the publishing industry contributes little of value to the system, and at worst prevents most people from accessing information that could be useful in the hands of the general public. In essence, the current system lacks utility in spreading scientific knowledge and neither apportions prestige fairly, nor distributes knowledge widely.

Minds around the world would benefit greatly, as the results of studies would be available internationally in many different languages. Universities and authors would also benefit because they are now able to publish and access papers at lower cost. Science as a whole would benefit due to the increased volume and visibility of papers published. Because of the greater number of eyes on the articles and the increased ease of peer review, communicative openness and the scientific method would benefit.

In order to be successful, the open web journal would require buy-in from academic institutions and scientific readers. A combination of aggressive marketing and branding to entice article submissions will facilitate presenting the site as a respectable, reliable source of information. We will need to develop the website’s software, decide how the site is run and edited organizationally (peer review and editing will play a huge part)

The overall progress of science will be assisted, because knowledge will be exchanged more freely. People who would otherwise not have the opportunity to read current scientific literature will have the chance to be inspired as well as educated by it. Competing with current journal models may persuade existing publishers to become more free in an economic and cultural sense. Researchers will have a website which will both distribute their knowledge to the world and grant them recognition for their work – without charging admission. Counting readers or articles would be simple metrics. Measuring changes in research job satisfaction, number of articles published worldwide, or cost of subscriptions to existing print journals would tell other sides of the story.

More IP Polemic

Aside from the aforementioned pragmatic rejection of IP that I and many others hold, there exists a (currently very unpopular) idealistic aversion to it. The argument states that there is no way to ‘own’ ideas. Given that we’ve legislated a lot of other intangibles into existence (citizenship, time, etc) I’m not doubting our theoretical ability to legislate the ownership of information. I’m not even asserting that information wants to be free, though the statement has its merits. I’m just very, very skeptical of the idea that information can belong to a person.

For one, unlike other types of property information isn’t even close to a scarce good. Once it exists, it can be replicated over and over for free, being built upon in any number of ways. To have exclusive ownership of something infinitely replicable seems beyond human ability.

Once a person invents something – a joke, a meme, a new and useful process – I can agree that they’re the sole holder and proprietor of every iota of that idea. But once it’s outside the mind of that person, I’d be forced to argue that it belongs equally to everyone who witnesses it. They’ve already multiplied it in their mind, potentially forever, and can’t disown it for any amount of money or effort. Are they just borrowing it? If they don’t own the copy in their mind, does the creator (or whoever the creator sold the idea to) own that region of their thoughts, or just the observer’s rights to share it?

The idea strikes me as preposterous on a really basic level. Please remember that I’m thinking of this as someone who traffics in information for a living, at let me know where I’m differing from a thought-out schema of our ability to own data.

Intellectual Property

IANAL (I am not a lawyer.)

I’m a proud cog in the information economy, and I make my living on manufacturing information. We all buy and sell information every day. The volume of information going around is rapidly increasing as time progresses, and I think it’s clear that we don’t have a good system for regulating the information economy.

On a legislative level, we currently have several failed systems for the regulation of intellectual property:

– There is no universal or global acknowledgment of intellectual property, and most systems of regulation simply break when the information leaves its creator’s jurisdiction. This leads to copyright being nearly meaningless in certain countries where IP is not recognized, not enforced, or neither.
– ‘Fair use’ in the United States is at best a cruel joke, and protects almost no one. The segment most unable to make fair use of a product are professional content creators, whose producers are reluctant to take any risk of costly litigation.
– Users are an enormous, slow-moving target for IP owners seeking legal recourse, and cannot muster even a token defense against whatever claims are brought against them. If not for groups like the EFF, few IP suits against end users would ever go beyond settlement.
– The largest content owners and producers (along with as umbrella industry groups and PACs) take it upon themselves to sponsor politicians friendly to their interests, resulting in well-funded campaigns for any legislators willing to cooperate with them.
– The United States Patent and Trade Office is an outdated, Kafkaesque organization with no semblance of understanding and a completely broken system of patenting. This is more arguable when one is discussing non-software patents; due to a gap in understanding between those who write or patent software and those who approve and adjudicate patents, the system currently in place for patenting software is rife with abuse (even according to many owners of software patents).

On a physical level, mechanisms so far intended to prevent violation of intellectual property rights have done little more than decrease the quality of products, while increasing the cost to manufacture them.

– To date, no system of DRM-laden content has ever shown promise in avoiding being subverted, gamed, or bypassed. In the arms race between secure distribution schemes and the holders of encrypted data, the odds will always be stacked clearly in the favor of unlocking information.
– Even a theoretically secure system is still entirely susceptible to transcoding or transcription. Regardless of how difficult it is to mass-distribute a strongly encrypted, watermarked, time-expiring piece of information, if the data is viewable by a human it is likely copyable, often perfectly, to another medium.
– Streaming, proprietary, or encryption-bloated data, often infused with the mandatory viewing of warnings about redistribution, is inherently less usable and much less desirable (to varying degrees) than content distributed otherwise.

Why is it so hard to regulate our god-given rights to information? Why should we be ‘punished’ for sharing information with the world?